Michael Cohen once said he’d take a bullet for Donald Trump. But the drastic change between then and now was made apparent when the onetime fixer and personal attorney testified last week as a key witness in the fraud trial that could take down Trump’s business empire.
Cohen’s highly anticipated testimony publicly pitted him against his former client, marking the first time the pair had come face-to-face since they became estranged. It demonstrated just how embittered each man has become.
When Cohen first entered the courtroom, former President Trump stared straight ahead, not sparing him a glance. Cohen strode past Trump and his team, only peering their way before taking a seat at the witness stand.
But the tension bubbling throughout Cohen’s testimony began to wear on both men as the days went on. As Cohen was questioned both days, Trump shook his head, whispered to his attorneys and, at one point Wednesday, threw both his hands above his head before storming out of the courtroom.
Cohen maintained a mostly cool demeanor on the stand until his past contradictions began to weave a tangled web around him, causing him to backtrack on earlier testimony — and later, clarify he hadn’t meant to backtrack at all.
Trump’s legal team took Cohen’s cross-examination as an opportunity to treat him as a punching bag, jeering at his criminal record and purported failure to earn a place in Trump’s White House. They also juxtaposed the high esteem in which Cohen once held Trump with the “animosity” he now projects.
“President Trump makes you relevant, doesn’t he, Mr. Cohen?” Trump attorney Alina Habba asked Cohen on his second day of testimony.
“I think my circumstances make me relevant,” Cohen replied, visibly agitated.
Cohen landed a few punches of his own, often breaking the flow of Habba’s cross-examination by requesting clarifications and cracking sharp-tongued jokes.
In a testy line of questioning, Habba asked Cohen whether he lied to the judge who accepted his guilty pleas in 2018.
“Asked and answered,” Cohen replied, an objection usually made by lawyers.
Trump attorney Chris Kise jumped to his feet and yelled, “Your honor, this witness is out of control!” as the courtroom erupted in laughter.
Cohen was working at a law firm when he was first introduced to Trump in 2006 by the former president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. He handled a few matters for the former president before Trump asked Cohen if he’d like to “leave that sleepy old firm and join him,” Cohen testified Tuesday.
However, Cohen was already familiar with Trump by the time they were introduced, he testified last week. Under cross-examination, he said he read Trump’s “Art of the Deal” twice in college and had “admired” the business mogul since high school.
As an executive at the Trump Organization, Cohen was known as a fiercely loyal aide, described by some as Trump’s “pit bull.”
“It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News of the nickname in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”
Their relationship took a turn after Trump assumed the presidency and Cohen was swept up in an investigation into a hush money deal made ahead of the 2016 election. Cohen paid a combined $280,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal on Trump’s behalf to cover up allegations of an affair.
That payment is at the core of Trump’s criminal indictment in New York, which is separate from the civil fraud trial. Cohen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the deal, though he earned early release due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said of Trump at his 2018 sentencing hearing.
Since then, Cohen has become one of Trump’s most zealous critics. Habba asked Cohen on Wednesday whether he harbors “significant animosity” toward Trump. After a pause, Trump’s former fixer and personal attorney starkly replied: “Yes, I do.”
“In fact, you often go on social media, stating all your animosity?” Habba asked.
“Not all my animosity,” Cohen replied, causing laughter in the gallery. The disbarred lawyer later conceded he has built his new career off publicly attacking Trump.
Trump’s enmity toward Cohen largely played out in cross-examinations by his counsel, who attempted to paint Cohen as a criminal and “proven liar.”
During Habba’s cross-examination, Cohen testified he lied under oath when, in 2019, he told Congress that Trump did not direct him to inflate numbers in his financial statements. But when Clifford Robert, an attorney for Trump’s sons, questioned Cohen over the same 2019 testimony, Cohen’s story changed.
“Mr. Trump never directed you to inflate the numbers in his personal statement. Yes or no?” Robert asked Cohen after a heated back and forth in which Cohen avoided answering the question.
“Yes,” Cohen said.
Trump threw his hands in the air and scanned the room, as did Habba. Robert asked Judge Arthur Engoron for a directed verdict — an immediate win —after claiming the government’s “key witness” testified he was not directed by Trump to balloon the figures, the claim at the core of the attorney general’s case.
Without skipping a beat, Engoron denied the order. Trump scoffed, abruptly stood and beelined for the courtroom exit, trailed by his Secret Service detail. The gallery was left in a stunned silence.
After Trump stormed out, Cohen attempted to clarify his testimony by suggesting Trump’s legal team was “cherry-picking” his comments to pigeonhole him into contradicting himself. He said Trump “speaks like a mob boss” and “tell[s] you without specifically telling you” what to do.
Cohen read additional comments from the 2019 transcript that Trump’s attorneys referred to on cross-examination — comments that immediately followed those presented — which reiterated his testimony that Trump wanted them to inflate his net worth to be “higher on the Forbes [billionaire’s] list.”
Once court was dismissed for the day Wednesday, Cohen slammed Trump for leaving the proceeding before it finished.
“You may have seen Mr. Trump’s storm out. He stormed out because they wanted to make a motion to dismiss the case, to which the judge responded, ‘Yeah, absolutely not.’” Cohen said. “You know why? Because he will ultimately be held accountable.”
“As I said the other day, that’s what this is all about; it’s accountability,” he said.
Trump and Cohen may come face-to-face again during the former president’s criminal case in New York. That trial, where Cohen is likely to be a witness again, is slated to begin March 25.
But the fireworks of their first courtroom clash may be hard to top. After Cohen’s first leg of testimony concluded Tuesday, a reporter asked: “Michael, how did it feel to see Donald Trump again?”
With a dry laugh, Cohen replied: “Heck of a reunion.”